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19 April 2023

What does the end of Twitter mean for news media?

Without Twitter, the future of news on social media looks even more bleak.

By Sarah Manavis

They call it “the hellsite” for a reason. Over the years, Twitter has become synonymous with the spread of harmful ideas and misinformation – from anti-vax rhetoric to fake news. It has been a notorious catalyst for some of the most infamous events of the decade: Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, the Capitol Hill riots.

Herein lies the paradox of the platform – it is the home of both news and fake news, mainstream media and misinformation. Frequented by politicians and journalists, it is known as the site where news often breaks first. Ironically, news and misinformation have long-thrived on Twitter in tandem.

This was viewed as a problem by Twitter and, until recently, the social media platform was taking significant steps towards rectifying the issue. Up until Elon Musk’s takeover last October, abuse on the site was being addressed by the platform; content moderation was showing people less spam, and, by 2021, most Twitter users went to the site for news, and a majority of users had some trust in it to be accurate. New functions were introduced to help people spot misinformation: in the summer of 2020, Twitter began flagging “state-affiliated media” outlets – this label appeared next to the name of accounts of propaganda media, such as Russia Today and China’s Xinhua News Agency, which were also barred from advertising on the platform and excluded from the recommendation algorithm. This innovation did not strip these outlets of their blue tick verification, but developed a new way to tell users something important: yes, the account in question was the outlet it claimed to be, but they should still think twice before trusting it.

[See also: Twitter is dead]

In the past three weeks, the “state-affiliated media” label has been wildly misused. On 4 April, it suddenly appeared on the US National Public Radio (NPR) Twitter account, however the broadcaster should not be included in this category as it has editorial independence and minimal government funding. After outrage ensued, the label was changed, first to “government-funded media” and then to “publicly-funded media” (the BBC, also once exempt from the “state-affiliated media” category, now also carries this label, and the organisation has formally objected). After appealing to directly to Musk – who has shown open contempt for NPR and the left-leaning biases he believes the organisation has – to have the label removed, NPR announced that it would stop using Twitter permanently.

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This incident is one of many deterring major news organisations and journalists from Twitter. It comes alongside the end of the current system of blue-tick account verification (after 20 April, a blue tick will no longer be used to verify users, but will become the privilege of those who pay a monthly subscription). Some news sources, such as NPR and PBS, are leaving the platform entirely; others, such as the New York Times, which Musk specifically stripped of its blue tick, are encouraging its readers to follow them on other platforms. The disappearance of news organisations on the site has been described as a major blow for the platform. But what is the future of news on social media if that future no longer includes Twitter?

While there were issues with how news spread on Twitter, it was one of the platforms where news was starting to be shared better. With the changes made to its algorithm and moderation methods, Twitter’s pre-Musk approach had became much quicker at filtering out and removing false stories. The platform also chose to de-prioritise news over its other offerings, implementing changes to make it more difficult for a single tweet or story to go viral. And as a text-based site, it was easier for both humans and software to find misinformation through simple keyword searches on Twitter than on other video or image-based sites.

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[See also: Why Twitter has profound impacts on society]

All this made Twitter a more controlled news environment; a central hub of (mostly) verified stories. However, the future of news appears to be moving alarmingly in the opposite direction: rather than attempting to make news better-vetted and centralised, the online information landscape is becoming even more fractured with social media as its most dominant driver. Smaller and less well-moderated sites, such as the hard-right platforms Parler and Telegram, are drawing in dedicated audiences for news. News media is increasingly pivoting to (vertical) video, and Google is pivoting to surfacing short-form video in its search results. And younger generations are increasingly turning to TikTok and Instagram for news, even using TikTok as their primary search engine.

If other text-based social media sites, many of which pride themselves on their lack of moderation, flourish, it will only be more difficult to trace and report misinformation. And while short-form video can of course be an engaging medium for conveying information – TV news, after all, predates all of this – the primary consumption of news via unvetted TikToks is going to be a problem. Video is, at the moment, much more difficult to moderate than text; there is also less technology available to carry out that moderation. TikTok’s algorithm allows false information and unsourced infotainment to go viral at an unprecedented rate.

Twitter won’t totally disappear from the news ecosystem immediately, nor is a better version of Twitter necessarily the answer to how we make news consumption via social media actually good. In an ideal world, people wouldn’t rely on their social media feeds to understand the world – or would at least complement it with trusted sources.

But the death of news on Twitter marks the beginning of a new era for how news travels online: one where stories move faster than ever, from sources that are increasingly less trustworthy – and one that will make the peak of Twitter misinformation look like it wasn’t so bad after all.

[See also: Can Linda Yaccarino save Twitter?]

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